Today’s post is from Keith Henry, an independent management consultant, Catholic apologist, and spiritual director in San Francisco.
The Church has long taught that LGBTQ Catholics are to be welcomed with pastoral ministries that are “appropriate.” Multiple ministries flourish, applicable to different people’s experience of faith and sexuality, sensitive to diverse communities, each graced with its own gifts and models of discipleship.
One of these apostolates is Courage, a network of support groups for Catholics who commit to follow an approach to chastity that was pioneered by their founder, Father John Harvey, OSFS. At its origin forty years ago, Courage was considered one among many appropriate LGBTQ ministry models. It has since moved to a position of semi-official endorsement by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops by being mentioned as an exemplar in their 2006 document Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care. In many dioceses, it is the only LGBTQ ministry.
We witnessed this preference most recently when Detroit’s Archbishop Allen Vigneron restricted the outreach of two long-standing Catholic ministries, Dignity/Detroit and Fortunate Families/Detroit, accusing them of being “rivals” to sound teaching, and even “harmful.” In a pastoral letter he defined appropriate LGBTQ ministry with Courage-like language as being focused on “those among us who experience same-sex attraction and strive to live Christ’s chastity.”
Now is a good time to examine the claim that the Courage model is superior to other forms of pastoral care and engagement. Is a support group for celibacy a model appropriate for all who wish to deepen their commitment, grow in virtue, and serve the Church?
I am spiritual director to several young men who have previously sought ministry from Courage. Their unanimous answer to the above question is “Absolutely not.” They admit that support groups might be helpful for some Catholics. But for them, the model falls short because, whether consciously or not, it encourages participants to be ashamed, alienated, and unnecessarily anonymous.
Courage chaplains often ask new members to view the film, Desire of the Everlasting Hills. The film profiles three conversion stories. Paul is unfulfilled by promiscuity. Dan comes to the Church after engaging in needy relationships. Rilene leaves her partner after decades of feminist activism as a couple. Testimonies like these are important to Courage, showing that it is possible to leave shameful lives behind and find support in the Church.
Frank D’Amore, the president of Dignity/Detroit recently noted, “Courage is like a 12-step program, which is kind of insulting. I don’t need a 12-step program. It’s ludicrous.” He is correct. When Father John Harvey founded Courage in 1980, he based it on Alcoholics Anonymous and his earlier ministry with sex-addicted priests. So, for example, attendees are asked to (Step 1) admit that they are powerless over homosexuality and (Step 2) ask for God’s grace to restore them to health.
In my experience, effective LGBTQ ministry takes a more positive approach. Ministers listen for virtue and build from there. Courage instead, from its first steps, frames sexual identity as vice. It is irresponsible for dioceses to urge attendance at recovery support meetings for LGBTQ faithful who do not struggle with addiction and shame.
Dan, the man featured in the movie mentioned above, wrote a 2017 memoir, Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay, in part to explain why Courage uses the phrase “people who experience same-sex attractions” rather than “LGBTQ” and other terms which, he says, “could give the impression that same-sex attractions define a separate category or type of person.” His book, like the ministry, insists that LGBTQ-positive naming is an endorsement of a false human identity. In committing to Courage, Dan believes he must leave behind the labels that did him harm.
While this moral framework might be helpful for Courage’s purposes, it is highly insensitive to Catholics who have healthy integrated sexual identities. The young men I work with are equipped with the moral powers of well-formed consciences, self-mastery and habits of virtue. I find they formed these habits as Catholics, not only via engagement with the Church but often with the support of the broader LGBTQ community. Their identities were formed in spiritually, emotionally, and mentally healthy ways.
The 2006 USCCB pastoral letter, Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination, suggests that LGBTQ people not reveal their identities “in the context of parish life.” Courage takes this advice to heart, and takes secrecy a step further. Their handbook states:
“Although a contact phone number and email address for the Chaplain are to be provided, care must be taken not to provide the location and times of meetings publicly in order to protect the anonymity and confidentiality of those with same-sex attractions.”
For support groups, the utility of anonymity can be helpful. For other sorts of ministries, public witness is crucial. The gay Catholic men I walk with in spiritual direction are highly motivated, optimistic, and committed to evangelization and involvement in parish life. Anonymity is not appropriate to their vocation. Gatekeeping stifles their engagement in the Church.
It’s a pity that, when presenting Courage as a preferred ministry model, bishops effectively establish criteria, not just for ministers but for those to whom we minister! Many enthusiastic and faithful LGBTQ Millennials are well formed in ways consonant with Catholic norms. They are discouraged and confused when asked to feel shame, abandon identity, and remain quiet when they seek to be emboldened.
For two millennia, Church teaching on sexuality and gender has been complex and controversial, but it has always been rooted in building virtue and promoting human dignity. In that time LGBTQ Catholics have walked a journey longer, truer and more beautiful than twelve steps.
—Keith Henry, September 28, 2020